Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Carriage-vans, ogres, and high school girls

"Didn't the carriage vans carry silkworms from the Arabian Peninsula to the Silk Road?"  
"CARAVANS, Maggie!" 
"Maggie, the silkworms came from China to Constantinople!"
"Wait -- was this before or after Basil the Ogre Slayer?"

"There were OGRES in Byzantium???!!!!!" 

Silence.  Raucous laughter. I face the blackboard so that they don't see just how hard I am laughing. My inner monologue reads something like "Am I really qualified to be a teacher? Do they remember ANYTHING?"

Welcome to the first day back after Winter Break.

As the 9th grade dean at an all-girls school in Baltimore, and as one of two ninth grade history teachers, I spend most of my waking hours with energetic, emotional, anxious, enthusiastic, eager-to-please teenagers -- remarkable human beings who are maturing into women so quickly it is dizzying. It is fair to say that never before have I laughed so much and been moved to tears so frequently on a daily basis as I do in this, my truest of callings. I am amazed by their strength and their spirit, especially given how much they have to contend with on a daily basis. As one of my students dryly remarked to me recently, "Growing up is hard these days, Northie. You have no idea." 

Sometimes when I think about having children, I am terrified by how much I know that I wish I didn't.  A good friend of my senior students is in shock trauma right now due to a drunk driving accident. "She moved her toes," I hear the girls say.  "There's a prayer vigil today.  Maybe we can go after practice," another mutters.  It is serious. I breathe a short prayer, affectionately tug the ponytail of the girl who stands in the hallway, wearing her out-of-uniform Uggs, and keep walking.  I can't bring myself to mention the Uggs.

I don't envy these beautiful creatures.   Every moment of the school day, they glide in swarms past my fishbowl window looking out onto the hallway that is one of the major arteries of the school.  They wave hello while I teach, mouth "Hey Northie!", making hearts with their hands, kissing the glass on their way to something new.  Their lips leave imprints on the glass, and each evening, I watch semi-apologetically as the cleaning staff wipes the windows clean.  How many kisses has this window seen?  How much healing happens here?

They write their names in different script on my blackboard, searching for themselves in the dotting of an i or the flourish of a j.  "STRESS" they write, over and over  - a chant composed of chalk tapping furiously against my board. "The North Caliphate," one student wittily writes.  Another section of the board is devoted to a math equation that I stared at for a good five minutes when I arrived to school this morning.  I am inspired and humbled by how much they know. MEREDITH is written in thick white chalk.  I know that a student was looking for me.  I am sorry I missed her. I could talk to her for hours.

On any given day, I can walk past a student and know how she's feeling. While this makes me good at my job, it also means that my own heart is in large part comprised of the heartaches and the happiness of my students. The girls who through their sullen silence scream "SEE ME!!" and the girls who feel secure and safe only at our school. I often wonder how they do it - how do they find their smile?  How do they go from school to practice, to more practice, to home, eating dinner at 8:00, starting homework at 9:00?  How do they keep up with their lives?  Who do they have when they are not at school?  Do they know the value of silence?  They beg me for meditation time in our classes.  They sob on the floor of my classroom, curled in the fetal position, with their fists clenched in despair.  They struggle with reading and they work through words, and I watch while tears fall on the pages of their textbooks. "I just want something to be easy," they say. They give and take and love and hate, sometimes all in the span of a day. They struggle to be heard and seen, and they grasp at threads of contentment.  Their schedules rarely allow for it, however. "Less is more," I tell them.  They look at me as if I'm speaking Yiddish.

I have never felt disappointment in a student.  I am glad of this.  I hope that I never do.  I am content to see them as they are: flawed and perfect, hopeful and hopeless.  I wouldn't want to grow up now.  And they are teaching me so much about how to do so, in pain and joy.  I say thank you for the get-well card made in the shape of an aloe-juice bottle, for the beverage they know I like to drink. I say thank you to the Amazonian basketball player with the smile made of gold, who stoops to hug me, even though her heart harbors anger I have never felt.  I say thank you to the student who writes about how difficult it was to come out to her mother, and to another who writes about how difficult it is NOT to hurt herself.  I thank two students, who are my friends, for knowing me as well as I know myself.  All of these amazing spirits, fighting their own ogres. 

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow for the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions.

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
looking up from tables we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is.

-W.S. Merwin

For CBCS and MDC: Thank you.

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